Economic activity was once a means to an end; it was what people did to enable them to enjoy life. Today the economy is more an end in itself; both people and "the environment" are sacrificed to maintain the economy (or, more specifically, the existing wealth and power relationships within and increasingly global economic order). Indeed, the increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations and financial institutions with no commitment to place is excluding more and more people from effective participation in economic and political life. For ordinary people it seems that globalization is creating a world of "powerless places at the mercy of placeless powers" (anon.).
Sustainability requires that we reclaim the economy in the service of people and their communities. The purpose of economic activity should be to foster material security where people live rather than to promote mindless consumption to maintain the world's financial centers at the expense of the ecosphere. It may seem paradoxical, but global security is likely to find its deepest roots in strengthened community and regional economies. No power on Earth can manage globally. However, if individual bioregions learn to live on the sustainable use of their own resources supplemented by ecologically balanced trade, the net effect would be global sustainability.
It should be clear from the above that the sustainability we are discussing involves a global steady-state, an economy of regions whose aggregate throughput of energy and resources has been stabilized with some safety margin below maximum carrying capacity (maximum sustainable load). There can be no further material growth. This does not mean, however, that all GDP growth must necessarily cease. Indeed we noted earlier that growth is a pressing moral imperative for those whose needs are not being met, and industrialized countries have not yet found ways to maintain their standard of living without continued economic growth. One hopeful strategy to deal with this dilemma involves massive improvements in the efficiency of economic activity so that growth in consumption of goods and services is "decoupled" from growth in the use of energy and material. In theory, this should power an increase in consumption to be accompanied by a decrease in resource use. In fact, this "dematerialization" of economic good and services must proceed faster than economic growth to produce the necessary reduction in humanity's total load on the ecosphere. The political attractiveness of this approach is self-evident it enables the rich to maintain their high material standards while freeing up the ecological space needed for the poor to increase theirs.
One essential complement is ecological tax reform. By raising prices closer to the full social cost of goods and services, substantial resource depletion taxes, marketable quotas on natural capital inputs, or similar taxes on resource consumption would not only encourage conservation but also: a) stimulate the search for the needed material- and energy-efficient manufacturing technologies; b:) pre-empt any resultant cost savings, thereby preventing the economic benefits of efficiency gains from being redirected to additional or alternative forms of consumption; and c:) generate an investment fund that could be used to rehabilitate important forms of self-producing natural capital. Meanwhile significant reductions in value-added, payrolls and income taxes would reduce upward pressure on wages and salaries. Since both measures increase the attractiveness of labor relative to resources and capital, a positive side-effect of sustainability reform should be to increase the demand for labor.
There are, of course, problems with any such revolutionary proposal, no matter how theoretically attractive it may appear. Public ignorance, irreducible scientific uncertainty, the power of vested interests, and the large potential costs associated with required structural adjustments to the economy all present barriers to the decisive political action required for the "factor-10" scenario. (How receptive would today's politically cynical electorate be to any suggestion of massive tax reform?) Thus, while the efficiency revolution promises a great deal, our social and political institutions may not be able to deliver the technological goods. In these circumstances, the mounting pressure of population growth, rising expectations and increasing competition might push ecological decline and social unrest to the point where the presently rich may be forced to accept lower material standards in exchange for enhanced ecological and geopolitical security.
As shown by even the preceding preliminary sketch, it will require a transformation of industrial society far beyond anything the political process has been willing to contemplate to date. To those who say that any such vision is economically impractical and politically unrealistic we can only respond that the prevailing vision is ecologically destructive and morally bankrupt (to say nothing of potentially lethal). Surely what is politically realistic is determined by circumstances, and with global ecological decline the relevant circumstances have changed. The present challenge, then, is to raise the general level of awareness of the reality to the point where political consensus forms around the necessary initiatives. The alternative is to stay the present course until accelerating decline removes any lingering doubt that we are facing a global crisis. By then, of course, it will be too late to organize a reasoned, effective and globally coordinated response.
—Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth; Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees; pg. 142-7.